Whether you live in the UK, the US or anywhere in between you will have likely heard the expression, “It’s a civil matter” in reference to law enforcement not being able to help. Believe it or not, this is not just an excuse the police use to get out of doing their job, but what is the difference between civil law vs criminal law, what charges and rules apply and when is it one or the other?
Definition of Civil Law vs Criminal Law
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that while some of these differences will apply to the UK and other countries, we’re focusing on the united States. Here the definition of something that falls within the spectrum of civil law is a dispute between individuals or organizations that concerns a compensation being awarded.
Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with the criminal law of the land, dealing punishment in the form of fines, jail time and other offenses. The goal of the former is simply to settle and to come to an agreement should one not be reached without the involvement of the courts. The goal of the latter is to enact punishment on those that deserve it according to the law of the land, thus helping to maintain the stability of society.
Civil Law vs Criminal Law: The Judge and Jury
Ever wondered why some cases rely on a unanimous verdict whereas others don’t? Well, it may be because one was a civil case and the other was a criminal one. In a civil case, the jury verdict may not be unanimous, but it needs to be if it is a criminal case. The laws actually differ from state to state in civil cases and a jury often doesn’t even need to be present, with the judge being the one to determine the outcome of the case.
In a criminal case, however, the jury will always need to be present and this applies across all of the United States. They are the ones that determine the outcome and their verdict needs to be unanimous.
As for the filing of the case, it comes from a private party in a civil case and from the government in a criminal one. The outcome is also a little different, with the defendant found guilty or not guilty in a criminal case and then dealt with accordingly, and being found liable or not liable in a civil case.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
The saying, “Beyond a reasonable doubt” basically means that the jury must believe, beyond all implausible doubt, that the defendant committed the crime. In other words, they can’t just suspect that they did it based on minimal evidence and the fact that they are showing no remorse or had a motive. But at the same time, they can’t start including unreasonable scenarios in order to discount them.
As an example, if a man is on trial for murdering his wife and cashing in on her life insurance, the jury are not showing that there was “beyond reasonable doubt” just because he had something to gain and there was proof that he had the occasional heated argument with his wife. However, if his finger prints were on the murder weapon, someone saw him covered in blood, and he muddled his story when questioned by the police, they are proving this. It could be that he accidentally picked up the murder weapon after someone else had killed his wife, that the blood was from his own broken nose that just so happened to heal quickly and that he muddled his story because he was very forgetful, but that’s where the “unreasonable” aspect comes into play.
In a civil case, it’a little different and something known as “preponderance of evidence” is used instead. This means that the emphasis is on the defendant, who must provide evidence to shift the balance of probability heavily in their favor. The burden of proof is often on the claimant, who must prove that they are not liable, but it can also fall on the defendant in certain cases.
In criminal cases, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty and it is the prosecution who must provide the evidence to prove that the defendant is guilty.
Civil Law vs Criminal Law: Examples
Criminal cases, as you no doubt know, involve crimes such as theft, assault and murder. It is basically anything that breaks the law, whether the act was against a member of the public, an organization or the government. The most common civil cases are disputes between landlords and tenants, child custody battles and personal injury disputes. In these cases, laws haven’t necessarily being broken, but there could be issues with contracts and agreements being broken.
There are also cases where the two laws merge, such as a child custody battle where one of the parent takes it upon themselves to “kidnap” the child from the other. In such cases it may become a criminal issue or it may remain a civil one, depending on the severity and the circumstance.
Civil Law vs Criminal Law
That pretty much covers all of the basics of civil law versus criminal law, but there are a few more minor differences between the two, as well as a lot of information that you need to learn should you be involved with either of them. To learn a little more, seek some help from a legal FAQ and find an attorney who can help you.
Knowing whether you have a civil case or a criminal case is really all you need to determine what kind of lawyer you will require.